The Battle of the Hyeres Islands – 13 July 1795
Having made good their escape from the British Mediterranean fleet in March following the Battle of Genoa, the French Toulon Fleet was supplemented on 3 April by six sail of the line and three frigates from Brest under the command of Rear-Admiral Jean François Renaudin, the officer who had so gallantly commanded the Vengeur 74 before surrendering her at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, and who, after being rescued from his sinking command, had been exchanged and returned to France two months later to be raised to flag rank. Renaudin’s arrival, along with that of two gifted captains in Joseph de Richery and Honoré-Joseph Ganteaume, appears to have had a galvanising effect upon a Toulon fleet that had recently been in a mutinous state, and once the seamen had been reminded of their patriotic duty by the Republican deputy Joseph Niou, the combined force of seventeen sail of the line and seven frigates under the command of the newly promoted Vice-Admiral Pierre Martin took to sea on 7 June.
At the time that the French sailed from Toulon, the British Mediterranean Fleet was cruising off Minorca under the reluctant and uninspiring command of Admiral William Hotham, who since learning that Admiral Lord Hood would not be returning to the chief command had requested to be relieved. Following the Battle of Genoa, he had lost the Illustrious 74 to damage incurred in that engagement but had gained an additional Neapolitan 74 as well as the Blenheim 98 and Bombay Castle 74, which had arrived at Leghorn on 19 March with a convoy. On 14 June he was joined off Minorca by Rear-Admiral Robert Man with reinforcements of seven sail of the line which had departed St. Helens on 24 May, these being the Victory 100, Gibraltar 80, and the 74’s Audacious, Cumberland, Culloden, Saturn, and Defence. Hotham’s twenty-three sail of the line therefore outnumbered Vice-Admiral Martin by six vessels, and he also enjoyed a superiority in three-decked ships, having six to Martin’s one.
On the morning of 24 June Hotham departed Minorcan waters, and after sailing up the coast of Sardinia and Corsica he arrived in Martello Bay, San Fiorenzo, on the northern coast of the latter island, on the afternoon of the 29th to water and refit. The first indication he had of the French being at sea came the next evening, when the cutter Fox arrived at San Fiorenzo bearing a dispatch from Captain George Henry Towry of the Dido 28, dated 27 June at Port Mahon, which not only delivered the happy tidings of that frigate’s capture of the French frigate Minerve three days earlier, but also advised that intelligence had been gleaned from the prisoners that the French fleet was at large.
Hotham was not unduly worried about the French excursion, believing it simply to be a mission that was intended to exercise their men, and when on 4 July he did send out a squadron under the command of Commodore Horatio Nelson of the Agamemnon 64, and otherwise consisting of the Meleager 32, Ariadne 24, Moselle 18 and Mutine 18, it was to ‘the Riviera of Genoa’ with instructions to offer assistance to the Austrian Army, rather than to search for the French. As it happened, at 4 p.m. on 8 July off Cape del Melle, whilst sailing between Nice and Genoa, Nelson’s squadron did come upon the French fleet almost twenty miles away to the north-west, and the ambitious commodore soon found his little force under pursuit.
Over the ensuing night and into the next morning, Nelson’s squadron was chased all the way back to San Fiorenzo, with the laggardly Moselle in particular coming under threat from the advanced enemy ships. At 7.20 on the morning of the 9th, and with Cape Corse some fifteen miles to the south-east, Nelson began firing his signal guns to alert Hotham of the French presence. For a couple of hours the anchored British fleet, pinned helplessly in Martello Bay by an adverse wind, watched as their comrades in the offing appeared in imminent danger of capture; however, as soon as Martin discovered the Hotham’s ships at anchor he quickly re-gathered his scattered command, and at 9.30 bore away to the west.
Throughout the rest of the day the British fleet worked tirelessly to get itself ready for sea, and when it was finally able to pick up the land wind at 9p.m. it began to get under way. By the following midday it was clear of the bay and had set off in pursuit of the French, the wind being in the south-south-west. On the 12th, bring about twenty miles to the east of the Ile de Levant, which itself is the most easterly of the Hyères Islands, Hotham received information from the frigate Cyclops 28, commanded by his nephew, Captain William Hotham, and the Fleche 14, Commander Thomas Boys, that the French fleet had been spotted a matter of hours earlier to the south of the islands, and so signalling ‘prepare for battle’ he turned towards the south-west. The night that followed was stormy with winds from the west-north-west that saw half a dozen British ships split their main-topsails, whilst in the French fleet the strength of the wind was such that it blew their beacon lights out.
At daybreak on the 13th, when the British fleet was standing to the south on the starboard tack, Martin’s inferior fleet was discovered some five miles off the larboard beam, sailing on the larboard tack in no particular order towards the coast, which at this point was some fifteen miles distant. At 3.45 a.m. Hotham commenced manoeuvres to retain the weather gauge whilst attempting to keep Martin away from the shore, but in doing so he ordered his ships to retain their line of battle. The strong wind at this time was still in the north-west and there was a heavy swell. At 6 a.m. Hotham gave the order to wear ship onto the same tack as the French, but as the morning advanced Martin was the first to anticipate a wind change to the west, and having been granted so many weeks at sea in which to train his men and bring them back to their duty, he was skilfully able to get his line in order. His intention was to make for the safety of the Golfe Jouan, but it would soon become apparent that as he approached the coast the easing wind would make that a difficult objective.
Leading the British pursuit was Nelson’s speedy Agamemnon 64, a role she had shared with the Diadem 64 throughout the night, and Hotham was obliged to throw out several signals to recall the firebrand back into the line of battle. By 8 a.m. it became apparent to the admiral that the French had no intention of accepting an engagement, and having wasted valuable time in getting his own fleet into order, as indeed had been the case at the earlier Battle of Genoa, he now signalled a general chase, with his ships to engage as they came up on the enemy. As the morning wore on the wind eased as it veered towards the south, and by midday, at which time the last ship in the British line was some eight miles in arrears of the first, the British van under Rear-Admiral Man was able to come up from the south-west with the strong breeze and get to grips with the French rear.
At 12.30, and with the coast in sight, the wind suddenly shifted from the south-west to the north, allowing the three rear-most French ships to open up with their starboard broadsides upon the Victory, Culloden and Cumberland. It was no surprise that Captain Thomas Troubridge’s Culloden accepted the challenge, but an officer serving aboard Man’s flagship, the future Admiral Sir Edward Hamilton, later reported that by backing the Victory’s main-topsail in order to allow other ships to pass him, Admiral Man appeared somewhat dilatory in forcing an engagement. Similarly hesitant was the fast-sailing Defence, which lay to on the larboard quarter of the Victory with her topsail aback whilst failing to respond to hails to pass on ahead. Even so, the fire of the Victory, supplementing that of the Culloden and Cumberland, forced the rearmost French ship, the Alcide 74, commanded by the 27-year-old Captain Laurent Leblond Saint-Hylaire, to throw up a most gallant defence with support from the Tyrannicide 74, Captain Alain-Joseph Dordelin; indeed, such was the blistering fire from the enemy’s rear that Troubridge’s ship was obliged to drop away having lost her main topmast. The French would later claim that the Victory’s mainmast had also been shot away, and although this was neither verified nor acknowledged in British reports, it was admitted that she had been severely damaged aloft, losing several yards and being considerably wounded in all three of her masts and her bowsprit.
As the firing continued it soon became apparent that despite the support of the Tyrannicide, which boldly attempted to interpose herself between the threatened Alcide and her assailants, the latter was in danger of being cut off. Martin clearly wished to save Saint-Hylaire’s ship, but even though the British van was detached from the rest of its fleet and could easily be outnumbered, he dared not risk a general action by bringing his own line about. Instead, displaying startling seamanship and a valour that attracted the unbridled praise of the watching British officers, the frigates Alceste 36, Captain Jean-Joseph Hubert, and Justice 40, Captain Jacques Dalbarade, dropped back under fire from their station to windward of the French line to assist their compatriot. Upon manoeuvring across the Alcide’s bows, the Alceste launched a boat which attempted to carry over a tow line to the stricken vessel, but it was was sunk by a shot from the Cumberland or the Victory, and with the Agamemnon, Blenheim, Captain, and Defence now adding to the cannonade from a distance, the frigates were forced to abandon the Alcide and save themselves.
The Alcide’s fate was now inevitable, and just before 2 p.m. she struck to the Cumberland; however, such was his haste to bring the other French vessels to account that Captain Bartholomew Rowley did not stop to take possession. About a quarter of an hour later the Alcide caught fire, with later reports suggesting that the cause was either a box of combustibles setting alight in her foretop, or ash from her forge which had been lit to heat her shot coming into contact with loose powder. Whatever the cause, the blaze forced the Tyrannicide to abandon any hope of saving her consort and to seek her own escape.
By now the cannon fire had stilled the wind in the offing to leave the British centre and rear becalmed, whilst a shift in the wind to the east further inshore allowed the French to gain the weather-gauge on the starboard tack, and their van began to ease in towards the Bay of Fréjus. In the British van the Agamemnon, Blenheim, Defence, Gibraltar, Captain, and Cumberland all attempted to press home their attack on the French rear consisting of the Généreux, Berwick, Tyrannicide and Aquilon. But then at 2.35, and with the shore still about twelve miles distant, the pursuers received a bombshell when they were recalled by the distanced Hotham, as he considered them to be at risk from the approaching lee shore and the batteries in Fréjus Bay. Totally disgruntled, Captain Rowley decided not to take notice of the commander-in-chief’s instructions, and he only broke off the pursuit when Man’s Victory twice demanded his recall with a gun. Aboard the Princess Royal, Vice-Admiral Samuel Goodall threw his hat down on the deck and kicked it around furiously, for he simply could not countenance the signal of recall, as could barely anyone else in the fleet.
By 7.10 the French had anchored in Fréjus Bay, and all that was left for the British to do was to rescue as many as possible of those crew members of the Alcide who had leaped into the water. Approximately three hundred men were taken up before her magazine exploded at 3.45, resulting in the loss of at least another three hundred souls. Otherwise, French losses were unknown, whilst the casualty list of a mere eleven men killed and twenty-eight wounded on the British side gave notice of the irresolute nature of Hotham’s command and the ‘battle’.
By the beginning of August British newspapers were publishing French Convention reports that one of their ships had blown up in a Mediterranean engagement, and the excitement mounted with a letter from from a Bremen correspondent stating that he had met with three officers making their way to Cuxhaven who claimed that Hotham had taken five French sail of the line. For days rumours of a great success proliferated, and it was only on 8 August that the public learned the truth of the disappointing action, for on that day the content of Hotham’s letter dated 14 July, was published. Seeking to explain the indecisive nature of the battle, the admiral sought to excuse the age and condition of his ships, especially of his own flagship the Britannia, and he also made reference to the change in the wind that had not only given the French the weather gauge, but had left his centre and rear becalmed, and consequently his detached van at risk from a superior enemy.
The reality was that Hotham had managed to miss out on a convincing victory once more, and in time Martin was able to regain Toulon without any further losses. For the moment the Toulon fleet did not represent a significant threat to British operations in the Mediterranean, but on 14 September Rear-Admiral Joseph de Richery was able to put to sea with six sail of the line and three frigates and as it took Hotham the better part of two weeks to respond to the danger by sending Rear-Admiral Man in pursuit, he was able to wreak havoc on a homeward-bound British convoy. In time, Hotham’s failure off the Hyères Islands would have greater repercussions once Spain entered the war in October 1796, for by then the possible amalgamation of an allied fleet left the British with no option but to evacuate the Mediterranean.
It was perhaps of little surprise that when Hotham resigned his command just three and a half months after the battle on 1 November, it was to the delight of his more active officers. He was replaced in the interim by Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, and then permanently by Admiral Sir John Jervis who, bristling with intent and purpose, arrived at San Fiorenzo aboard the Lively 32, Captain Lord Garlies, on Sunday 29 November.
British Fleet. Killed and wounded:
1 x 120 guns: Sans Culottes:
2 x 80: Tonnant, Victoire:
14 x 74 guns: Alcide, Aquilon, Barras, Berwick, Duquesne, Généreux, Heuruex, Jemmapes, Jupiter, Peuple Souverain, Républicain, Révolution, Timoléon, Tyrannicide:
7 x Frigates: Embuscade 40, Justice 40, Friponne 36, Alceste 32, Félicité 32, Junon 32, Sériuse 32: